Scientology broadens its domain
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 1998
LEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology has significantly expanded its downtown land holdings in the past year, piecing together properties near the Fort Harrison Hotel for what could become a large new "Scientology campus."
According to property records, three corporations representing the church have purchased eight properties since June 1997 at prices totaling $3.4-million. The purchases bring to 30 the number of Clearwater properties owned or controlled by Scientology.
And the number is expected to grow.
ANTI-CULT BUILDING? A lawsuit may widen the door for an anti-Scientology campaign. PAGE 11
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An agent for the church is seeking an additional six properties, all on one city block already partly controlled by Scientology. Those properties include three publicly owned parking lots, a fraternal lodge and the Clearwater headquarters of the American Red Cross, which dominates the block.
Part of the newly purchased land would be cleared to make way for the 3,500-seat auditorium Scientology officials unveiled in May.
The rest could be used for a large parking garage planned by Scientology, church spokesman Brian Anderson said.
The church's plans call for the auditorium to connect via walkway with a 320,000-square-foot office and counseling center to be built on an empty block across from the Fort Harrison. The center would be built on land the church has owned for years and would be one of the largest office buildings in Pinellas County.
According to a church brochure, the project would "stand as the focal point for all of Scientology for the years to come" and create "a true Scientology campus in downtown Clearwater." The city has been the spiritual headquarters for the church since 1975.
Anderson said last week the construction will start this year.
The land being assembled by Scientology is between S Garden Avenue on the west, East Avenue on the east, Court Street on the south and Franklin Street on the north.
Members of the Knights of Pythias at 623 Franklin St. said as recently as May that they never would sell the simple concrete block headquarters that lodge members built with their own hands in 1955. But as Scientology began to control more and more nearby property, the Knights realized they could be surrounded by a massive church parking structure.
"That's not the most desireable thing in the world," said lodge secretary Chuck Miller. "We decided we better sell to them." He said a deal could be final within a week.
At the Red Cross, a similar fear has taken hold.
"It's a question of whether they build around us or not," said Ben Nelson, executive director of the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Red Cross. "We've agreed to talk with them."
Nelson said the chapter's board has formed a committee to study such issues as an asking price and whether the Red Cross would need offices in Clearwater if it sells to Scientology. The building is valued at more than $600,000 for tax purposes.
"If I was a betting person, I'd say it'll probably happen," Nelson said.
He said the local Red Cross has consolidated many operations at its Tampa headquarters and no longer needs all the space in its Clearwater building, which is 25 years old.
Scientology has not had the easiest of times acquiring the land. It is paying dearly for its new properties.
An analysis of the eight recent sales shows that companies representing the church have paid prices that are, on average, 160 percent higher than the county property appraiser's assessment.
For example, three properties along Franklin and Court streets that were valued for tax purposes at between $80,000 and $90,000 ended up selling at prices well over $200,000 each.
One of them was the former Hub's Hideaway bar, 625 Franklin St., which was assessed for tax purposes at $88,700. A company representing the church bought it in October for $280,000.
A small office building on Court Street assessed by the county at $104,000 sold for $465,000. Another one assessed at $61,000 sold for $207,000.
"Wow," was county Property Appraiser Jim Smith's reaction.
"It's what the market will bear, I guess," he said. "People say, "Don't sell to the Scientologists.' But that's easy to say if you don't own the land."
Smith said he knows of no trend in downtown that would account for such a wide gap between assessed values and selling prices. He said he believed it was an isolated instance.
"It's a no-brainer to see what's going on there," Smith said. "I think it's just a situation where you have somebody who wants something and they want to piece it all together. And (the sellers) know that they've got more money than God. . . . That's supply and demand."
Clearwater Assistant City Manager Bob Keller said another factor may be at play as well. "Relatively little property has changed hands (in downtown) so it's very difficult to tell what downtown properties are worth," he said.
The total assessed value of the six properties the church still seeks is $958,000. If the current trend were to continue, the church could end up paying prices totaling $2.5-million.
Two of the properties sought by the church are owned by the city and one is owned by the county.
Carl Barron, the county's general services director, said the county has no interest in selling its 32-space parking lot to Scientology. It might, however, consider a land swap to replace the parking.
"They haven't presented us with anything that's of interest to us," Barron said. "Our position is, I don't care who they have a contract with. The bottom line is, I want to make sure that the Board of County Commissioners and the citizens of Pinellas County are at a minimum made whole."
Keller, the Clearwater assistant city manager, said the city has not decided whether to sell its two parking lots to the church. "One thing we've said is we're not going to be the first" to sell, he said.
The city's decision will be a measure of its relationship with Scientology. Church and city officials often have been at odds over the years, beginning in the 1970s when the FBI seized records showing that the church came to Clearwater with a plan to gain control over the town's leaders and major institutions.
According to church brochures, individual Scientologists still are being asked to contribute to the office building-auditorium project even as the church works toward submitting a site plan to the city.
So far, the church's plans show the counseling and training building on S Fort Harrison Avenue and the auditorium facing Franklin street. But none of the plans show where the parking garage would be.
Without at least 900 spaces, either in a garage or in parking lots, the project would not get city approval.
Anderson, the church spokesman, said the church has not determined where the garage would be but added it could be on the Red Cross block, where property is being assembled.
He also responded to comments from church critics who contend the church is not serious about the project and is using it as a way to get money from its parishioners. Those critics have noted that the church made the project public in 1989.
"It's a big project," Anderson said, explaining why it has taken so long to get off the ground. He noted that the church has erected a fence to prepare for construction and chosen a construction management company and is working with architects.
"It absolutely will happen," he said.